The birds are coming! The birds are coming!
Alaska's share of migratory birds is awesome. Go see them.
March 1, 2020
Let's face it, the coronavirus has changed travel plans all over the planet. Where does a nervous Alaskan go to have fun and adventures? Your own back yard.
Millions of tourists flock to The Last Frontier every year but residents have the envious cat seat to all the state has to offer – you just have to hit the road.
A birder's delight
Across the world and the Lower 48, birds fly north to breed and hatch their young. While not in the numbers of even 40 years ago that Elders in Utqiagvik told me once blotted out the sky, they still come in numbers that amaze.
Majestic sandhill cranes are related to ancient birds and I've always thought they must sound like them too. In fact, sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of any bird today. The oldest verified sandhill crane fossil is 2.5 million years old.
They can be seen close by Anchorage and in the Portage valley as well as Creamer's Field in Fairbanks.
If you have grandchildren hooked on dinosaurs, take them to see the cranes.
The Friend of Creamer's Field holds a celebration of the fall migration that includes Brunch with the Cranes, nature walks, a kids' crane walk, crafts, a crane calling contest, drawing workshop, driving tour of Fairbanks birding hotspots, a live birds of prey program, bird research talks and crane watching, plus a Tex-Mex feast outside in the event tent. For more information, call (907) 452-5162 or https://friendsofcreamersfield.org.
From March to May, celebrate the return of migrating raptors with Anchorage Audubon's annual Gunsight Mountain HawkWatch and HawkWatch Weekend, when raptors can be spotted along the ridgeline near Milepost 119 and include golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, northern goshawk, American kestrel, peregrine falcon and merlin. Swainson's hawk and osprey are sometimes seen migrating through. Bring warm clothing, binoculars, spotting scopes, lunch, snacks and lawn chairs for your comfort. Go to https://hawkwatch.org/migration/item/996-gunsight-mountain.
In May, the Kenai Peninsula Bird Celebration takes place in Soldotna, Kenai and Seward, organized by the Keen Eye Birding Club and offers walks and events geared to beginners as well as the advanced birder.
The Big Sit is held, an annual national bird watching event where participants record all the bird species they see or hear while within a seventeen-foot diameter circle for any period up to 24 hours. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/kenaipeninsulabirdfestival.
Go further afield
While the Ketchikan Hummingbird Festival is in April to honor those plucky little birds, male rufous hummingbirds do begin arriving in mid-March and are seen at feeders and flowers throughout Ketchikan by mid-April.
Their long migratory route was confirmed when a birder released a banded bird in Florida and its arrival in Chenega Bay showed a 3,500-mile flight.
Festival events include guided bird hikes, art shows and activities for children.
For more information call festival headquarters at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center at 907-228-6220.
Never been to Tok? Here's your chance. The Tanana Migratory Bird Festival in May takes place in Tok at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Sponsored by the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, this nearly weeklong festival includes birding tours, kids' activities, a junior duck stamp art competition, a young naturalist competition, and a live bird presentation. It has one of Alaska's highest densities of nesting waterfowl, and annually produces an estimated 35,000 to 65,000 ducklings. Spectacular migrations of lesser sandhill cranes, tundra and trumpeter swans occur each spring and fall. Up to 200,000 cranes, representing about one half of the world population, migrate through this corridor. Call 907-883-5312.
Speaking of swans, I have to advise any serious birder to go to Tagish, Yukon Territory, just off the South Klondike Highway for the annual April trumpeter swan migration that turns the Tagish River white with swans. It's just April when they come through. See https://bit.ly/38WUaI7.
In November, travel to Haines to see one of the largest gatherings of bald eagles in the world. Daily buses or vans carry you to the Alaska Bald Eagle Preserve to witness the annual "Gathering of the Eagles," when a late run of salmon attracts over 3,000 eagles. It's amazing and scary at the same time. There's photography workshops, wildlife presentations, tours, classes, live raptor presentations and evening entertainment.
For more information, call 907-766-3094 or visit https://baldeagles.org.
With its own long migratory route, Aleutian terns nest in Alaska before flying back to the Equator in the western Pacific for winter. Some even circumnavigate Antarctica before making their way back up to Alaska for the northern summer, flying over 40,000 miles in a year.
Celebrate them at the Yakutat Tern Festival in late May. One of the largest and southernmost breeding colonies of Aleutian terns travels to Yakutat and the area is considered to be a stronghold for a declining worldwide population. The Yakutat area is also at the forefront of Aleutian tern research, including studies on population trends, nesting ecology, and migration patterns.
The festival includes field trips, viewing Aleutian terns, children's activities, Native cultural events, and an art show. Go to http://www.yakutatternfestival.org to register.
If you're frustrated with your family always being on a cell phone, take them outside and out to one of these festivals and maybe they'll become an ardent birder.
Alaska's Important Bird Areas
Audubon Alaska has embarked on an ambitious project to map out all the important marine bird areas in the state. The organization has spent the last several years developing new methods based on mapping technology to identify those places by adding 124 new global Important Bird Areas (IBAs) to the list.
IBAs pass through rigorous scientific criteria, then passed by local and national committees of leading bird experts convened by Audubon.
IBAs may be a few acres or thousands of acres, but they do stand out from the surrounding landscape. For a place to qualify as an IBA, it must either support a large concentration of birds, provide habitat for a threatened or rare species, or provide habitat for a bird with a very limited or restricted range, according to Audubon Alaska. Once nominated and selected as an IBA, a site is then ranked as significant at either the state, continental or global level.
Take a gander that Alaska's IBAs at https://ak.audubon.org/important-bird-areas-4.